Treacherous snakes were not the only problem to confront Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Now, Eden was no myth but a real place – the Fertile Crescent located in the Tigris and Euphrates valley in ancient Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq).
This valley was actually an ecological paradise, a land of abundant wildlife, of rivers teeming with fish, and of lush vegetation thanks to soil made exceedingly rich by the annual overflow of rivers swollen with the winter rains. It was said that a twig stuck in the ground became a flowering tree overnight.
About 5000 BC, humans – known to us as the Sumerians – flocked to the valley and formed small agricultural settlements that – for the first time in history – produced surplus food. But trouble lurked in paradise. The floods that delivered the silt that enriched the soil were also extremely violent and powerful, sometimes even forcing riverbeds to alter course, destroying everything in their wake: crops, settlements and much of the human population. (The legend of Noah’s Ark sprang from these floods.)
For the Sumerians, the need to control this flooding was crucial and they proved equal to the challenge. What an ingenious people they were!
They invented writing and a whole bunch of other things: the arch, the boat, the calendar, the plow, and the wheel, just to name a few.
Bless their hearts, they also invented beer and wine. (The word alcohol is one of the few Sumerian words that have come down to us.)
To control the floods the Sumerians invented nothing less than a new and higher form of social organization. They invented centralization. They did it by creating the first public works projects in human history – a system of irrigation canals and dikes that crisscrossed their land, harnessing the terrific force of the annual floods, taming its destructive power and subjugating it to human control.
This system enabled the Sumerians to drain the swamps and marshy, low-lying land that surrounded the rivers thus making it arable and protecting it from flooding. Second, the artificial canals they constructed conveyed life-giving waters to the rainless desert that lay beyond the river valley, thus greatly expanding the land suitable for cultivation. Obviously, these were large-scale endeavors.
Small groups, of course, could not perform work on such a large scale. It required the mobilization of large numbers of workers. Moreover, the layout and clearing of the canals required expert planning. The management and maintenance of the irrigated land, the water, and the distribution of the crops demanded political control. To meet this need, the Sumerians formed elite hierarchies of priest-bureaucrats which controlled the political and economic life of the city state
Thus, the Sumerians assembled all the components needed for centralized systems: conceptualization and design of large-scale projects, detailed planning, deployment and coordination of expertise and specialization, and the formation of hierarchies based on extensive division of labor.
Splendid as the Sumerian achievement was, there were big downsides to it. The labor needed to construct and operate the irrigation system was forcibly conscripted by the central state. (The rich – no surprise here – were able to exempt themselves.)
Human freedom took a hit in another way too. The small decentralized agricultural settlements that characterized early civilization were tribal (kin-based) in composition and fiercely egalitarian. But as these settlements were subsumed into city states, this rough equality was replaced by rigid inequalities. Though it detracts from their luster, you could say that among the many inventions the Sumerians passed along to us was despotism.
According to Professor Norman F. Cantor, author of Antiquity, From the Birth of Sumerian Civilization to the Fall of the Roman Empire, ninety-five percent of the population was subjugated in this way, whether as slaves, peasants, or as urban workers compelled to serve the priest-bureaucrats until death. And this bureaucracy, albeit priestly, ultimately became corrupt, inefficient and oppressive. (What else is new? Except that today we’ve substituted technocrats for priests.)
Still, the payoff from this irrigation system was enormous. Food production soared. The Sumerians produced great crops of wheat, barley, dates and many vegetables and fruits: chickpeas, lentils, onions, garlic, lettuce, leeks, mustard, turnips, grapes, and apples.
The relative riches of the area made possible leisure time and the development of the arts. The Sumerians produced painting and sculpture in marble, hammered gold, and lapis lazuli. Sumer became the richest and most populous place then on Earth.
There was, however, a mighty big fly in this ointment. This abundance, wealth, and refinement came at the cost of widespread environmental devastation. The irrigated soils were poorly drained and, in the arid climate, high levels of evaporation followed, which led to the buildup of dissolved salts in the soil. Unfortunately, there weren’t any wise, public-spirited and far-sighted environmentalists in Sumerian society to constantly moan and groan about this devastation and the dangers it presented.
Pity the poor Sumerians! They probably didn’t know that such a thing as the Law of Unintended Consequences existed. They went on about their business as usual, oblivious to the ecological disruptions they were causing. Over time, the agricultural productivity of their lands was destroyed by rising salinity. With the collapse of its agricultural system, Sumerian civilization could not long endure.
Visiting Sumer’s site in recent times, Archeologist Robert McC. Adams describes how the “tangled dunes, long disused canal levees, and the rubble-strewn mounds of former settlement contribute only low, featureless relief. Vegetation is sparse, and in many areas it is almost wholly absent”
Maybe Adam and Eve were not driven out of the Garden of Eden after all. Maybe Adam and Eve drove the Garden out of Eden.